Lifetime Loyalty: Do you have it?

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A major online retailer did everything they could to save the $5.95 in free shipping they had promised – and in the process lost my business for life.

I’m a big fan of Tom Peters. His 1982 book "In Search of Excellence" is an award-winning business classic. I was in the audience of one of Tom’s public speaking engagements in the early 1980’s, during which he presented a simple marketing philosophy that stuck with me until today: if you treat your customers with common courtesy, you can own the lion’s share of whatever market you’re in.

Courtesy is the Foundation of Good Customer Service

To illustrate his philosophy, Tom spoke about his personal experience buying a bottle of wine from a small, family-owned liquor store. He’d never shopped at the store before, having preferred to stick with a well-known national chain. But on this day Tom was in a hurry and the small local wine merchant was nearby.

Due to a computer glitch, the merchant had a problem getting an electronic authorization for Tom’s credit card purchase and was forced to call the card in over the phone. Consequently, the sale took a few minutes longer than it should have. As he bagged the bottle of wine, the store owner picked up a couple of two cent mints he had in a dish on the counter and dropped them into Tom’s sack. "I’m sorry," he said. "No one should have to wait that long to make a purchase. I sincerely hope you’ll shop with us again."

Tom was impressed. Clearly the credit card problem wasn’t the store owner’s fault, yet he felt compelled to "make it right". Thanks to his common courtesy, Tom Peters now shops for his spirits only at that very same small, family-owned store. The owner had bought Tom’s lifetime business for less than a nickel.

Good Service is a Magic Potion, Online or Offline

Online customer service is no different than offline. Serve your customer well, even electronically, and you can also buy their lifetime business for practically nothing.

I recently had an experience that cost a well-known merchant my business for life. It was time for new contact lenses, and the cost of a pair at my doctor’s office was $80. I visited the Web site of a heavily advertised national contact lens retailer and quickly found the same pair of lenses for $69. I also used a $10 promotional discount code I’d found on another Web site, and because I was a new customer, the shopping cart at the Web site offered free shipping. The grand total: $59.

Nothing against my doctor, but these days I’m always looking for a bargain and $21 is a significant savings. Shortly after entering my credit card information and confirming the sale, I received an e-mail receipt documenting my purchase and showing two credits: the $10 promotional discount and $5.95 in free shipping.

Thus Begins the Tale of Woe

The next day I received a telephone call from the online retailer. They were out of stock of the particular items I’d ordered, but offered an alternative lens by the same manufacturer at the same price. I agreed to the substitution.

Fifteen minutes after hanging up, I received another call from the lens retailer, this time to collect my credit card information for the modified order. I explained that they had already processed my card online and received an authorization code (I know this because I checked for it on my credit card company’s Web site). The rep claimed that they had no credit card information or approval on file for my purchase, so she needed my card number in order to ship my $69 purchase.

Wait. $69? Why the $10 price increase? The sales rep informed me that the only discount I could claim was free shipping as a new customer. She explained that I could not combine free shipping with the $10 discount code I had entered at their Web site. I argued that their site had allowed both discounts, and I was in possession of an electronic receipt to prove it. Impossible she claimed, and informed me that I had to choose: the $10 discount or free shipping. I chose the $10 discount.

In addition to losing out on free shipping, the sales rep continued to request a credit card number to charge me (a second time) for the same order. She insisted that they had no card information for me on file, and certainly no authorization code. In frustration I asked her to call me back in half an hour.

After hanging up with the lens retailer, I phoned my credit card company to confirm that they had, indeed, issued an authorization for this particular purchase. Sure enough, their computer showed an active approval code on file for the lens merchant in the amount of $59.

They Could Have Bought My Lifetime Business for $5.95

While I waited for the sales rep to call back, I decided to spend a few minutes shopping the competition. I quickly found that another online lens retailer had my first choice in stock. Fortunately for me, their normal price for the same pair of lenses was much lower at just $42, and the Priority Mail shipping price of $5.95 was the same. I quickly ordered from the new site I’d found, and paid just $48 – no discounts, no gimmicks. Email confirmation of my purchase arrived moments later.

Five minutes later the telephone rang, but it wasn’t the original retailer calling me back – this time it was a representative of the second company. Based on my first experience I was initially concerned, but as it turned out there wasn’t a problem, they were simply calling to confirm my purchase and to thank me for my business. This new company had just earned my contact lens business, probably for life.

Sadly, the first company, that well known, high profile, heavily advertised company, didn’t call back until the next day. It seems they had found my credit card authorization and had asked a supervisor to approve both the $10 discount and the $5.95 in free shipping. It was too late I told them, and cancelled my order. They had just lost my contact lens business, definitely for life, all over $5.95 and some pretty crummy customer service.

Sure, I ended up getting my lenses cheaper – but the fact is I still would have ordered from someone else since the first company failed to provide the common courtesy of honoring the discounts their Web site had initially provided me.

Don’t Sell Your Customers

Pay attention to your customers. Ask them what they need and want. Show them common courtesy. And most of all, don’t sell the lifetime business of your customers to your competitors for $5.95.

Steven C. SlawinSteven C. Slawin
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Steven is a former contributing editor for two national computer magazines. Steve's Position Guardian service is the Web's leading expert tool for monitoring pay-per-click search engine bids.

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